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S. Elibyari: The Charter of Quebec Values – Projet de loi 60

Address at a UPF-Canada Forum
“Is There a Conflict Between a Secular State and Religiously Inclusive Society?”
Montreal, Canada - November 21, 2013

I would like to reflect on The Charter of Quebec values or the ‘projet de loi 60’ as it is presently designated. Supposedly, it is a set of rules to ensure a neutral state and to enshrine equality between men and women. Simple and clear? Or maybe not.

Two days ago, I was catching up with an old friend, a political activist. We have marched along with each other in many demonstrations throughout the years. Inevitably, the subject of the Charter popped up. After giving his opinion, he said: “Look at Facebook and Twitter, the discussion isn’t really about the Charter, it’s about Muslims and Islam.”

So, the issue is Muslims and Islam in Quebec. What then is the solution?

Wait a minute, let us ask ourselves first, what is the problem?

Monday, November 4 2013 The Montreal Gazette reports extracts from a talk by Jacques Frémont, chairman of the Quebec Human Rights Commission:

That the charter would violate the basic freedoms of religion and expression is a no brainer. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be justified, however, if it were a rational and proportionate solution to an important problem. But it’s not. ‘It’s a non-answer to a non-problem. It’s not because you wear a veil that the state will not be secular.’

Also Mr. Frémont mocked the idea that a student at Dawson or a child in daycare would convert to Islam if he was educated by a woman wearing a hijab, for instance.

I want to share with you, that in Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country, for most of the 20th century, the best schools were confessional schools. Some of them are still in operation though not with the same academic standards as before. My grandmother went to the Mère de Dieu, and learned French there, and my mother was educated at the American Mission. I was sent to a French lycée because my mother thought that the schools run by nuns reinforced discipline and she foresaw, quite rightly, that I wouldn’t fare well in such a structured environment.

In the year 2000, I went to the Jésuites, as the school is known and interviewed the principal. In the auditorium where we were recording, I noticed a large crucifix on the wall. Roughly half of the students at the Jésuites are Muslim boys, but I have never heard anyone converting and no parents ever objected to any religious symbol. To be honest, I’ll have to say that this climate of religious tolerance has deteriorated over the last decade for reasons that are outside the scope of this talk.

Here in Quebec, no Muslim has ever raised the issue of the crucifix at the National Assembly. It never crossed my mind and now that it has become a contentious issue, I say what harm is it doing to me? It is part of the religious heritage of our society and I don’t have any problem with that. By contrast, I find the face of Queen Elizabeth on our $20 bill mildly irritating because I reject this symbolic imperialism. However, I can very well live with it, and the more bills in my pocket the better.

Contrary to stereotypes, Muslim immigrants are by and large flexible and pragmatic. We came here looking for better opportunities but also to live in a free democratic country. We do recognize and appreciate the choices we are offered.

We are falsely accused of wanting to change the laws of our society, as Céline Dion claims in her interview with Maclean: “these women who practice the things they believe in have to adapt to our country. They have to not change our laws.” In fact, we are happy with the present laws, in particular with the Chartre Québecoise des Droits et Libertés. We are the ones who find that the tables have been turned on us.

Quebec enjoys a unique privilege in selecting immigrants. Moreover, women who wear the hijab are assured that they will not be discriminated against. This is an official talk, but we know the bitter reality. The highest unemployment rate in Quebec is among North African men, hovering around 30%. This does not include those highly educated men who become taxi drivers or grocery store clerks in order to feed their families. Among day care workers wearing the hijab, a majority are university graduates, many with doctorate degrees in sciences.

As to reasonable accommodations, I quote again Jacques Frémont that such problems made up less than 1% of the complaints received by the Commission. And I may add that out of this 1% a tiny fraction concerns Muslims - a fact that is usually and conveniently overlooked by the French media.

In the interview with MacLean magazine mentioned earlier, Céline expresses disagreement with the request of a patient be to be treated by a male or female physician. It is worth stating that this case never occurred in Quebec.

I will take the opportunity of speaking here today to remind Céline that when she was seeking fertility treatments she went to clinics in New York and Boston. When my husband was in his final days, we went to the Royal Victoria. I am not questioning the competence or commitment of the personnel at this hospital but my husband spent three days in the halls of the emergency department waiting for a bed. Since he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, he got extremely disturbed and wanted to escape. The nurses had to restrain him in bed with leather straps. And this wasn’t the worst I’ve seen. If we as a society are concerned by the quality of life, this type of situation should be one of our priorities.

Another fact that is conveniently overlooked is that many Muslim female residents wearing the hijab and working at the English hospitals actually come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries in increasingly larger numbers. Our hospitals are very pleased to have them since the governments of these residents pay their salaries, a sizable saving. In addition, these ‘foreign workers’ benefit our economy. They rent apartments at Ile-des Soeurs and buy scarves from Ogilvy’s. I can also attest that these young doctors are happy to gain experience in Quebec. It is indeed a mutually profitable agreement that deserves to be developed. Because of time limitations, I will not expand on the international repercussions from the Muslim world should the ‘projet de loi 60’ be adopted. Suffice to say that not anticipating any repercussions indicates an irresponsible attitude.

During this unfortunate debate, we also heard, read and saw many variations on the exhortation to ‘go back to your home,’ to which the Association Musulmane Québécoise responded in a press release:

Montréal, le 5 novembre 2013 – Nous Québécoises « de souche » dénonçons l’utilisation fallacieuse du mot musulman en équivalence du mot immigrant. Que ce soit dans les déclarations de politiciens, d’animateurs, de chroniqueurs, de commentateurs ou même de personnalités de la scène culturelle, nous entendons trop souvent que « les musulmans doivent s’adapter à notre culture ». Soyons claires : l’islam est une religion et non une culture! Nous sommes musulmanes ET québécoises.

Nous considérons que ceux et celles qui prennent la parole devraient mieux mesurer les conséquences de leurs propos qui créent la peur, voire incitent à la haine, des musulmans. Les tentatives d’exclusion ne favorisent pas la paix sociale. Nous nous opposons au projet de charte des valeurs québécoises parce qu’en tant que québécoises et musulmanes nous valorisons le respect de la diversité. Nous souhaitons voir davantage de lieux d’échanges et de dialogues pour que les citoyens puissent aller au-delà des apparences et apprendre à se connaître et se respecter dans leurs différences.

La communauté musulmane est très diversifiée et parmi ces voix multiples, il y a celles des converties. Nous déplorons que les médias donnent davantage de place et de crédit à certaines « musulmanes islamophobes » venues d’ailleurs pour servir une vision exclusive de la laïcité qui va à l’encontre du droit à la liberté d’expression. Nous refusons de nous faire imposer une vision du monde pour venir nous « libérer » ou parce que nos choix déplaisent à certains. Nous demandons le respect à ceux-là mêmes qui nous demandent de les respecter.

Notre souhait est maintenant que cessent les injures et les chicanes pour que tous les Québécois et Québécoises puissent contribuer ensemble à l’enrichissement de notre société dans un espace civique et public libre de toute discrimination. Enfin, nous remercions tous ceux et celles qui ont fait preuve de solidarité à notre endroit.

But this is generally a well accepted trend. If anything reprehensible is done by a Muslim anywhere in the world, it is automatically assumed that the same will happen in our community. Moreover, we are expected to know, explain and denounce these occurrences, immediately, loudly and clearly. Even if we scream at the top of our lungs the media rarely echoes our condemnation. By the same token, nothing positive seems to come out of any Muslim country, people or community, if we believe our media.

I was once invited at a panel for the CBC and had to address the question, “What would you like us to present in our programs?” My candid answer was “I wish I got up one morning and saw nothing said about Muslims.” This wasn’t well received, I realized. Everyone wanted to be accommodating, show gratitude for being invited, make a good impression and be nice.

We refuse to be driven into silence and isolation. There are no Muslim ghettos. Being a Muslim is one identity marker but doesn’t encompass our identity, which is not set in stone as some would like you to believe. We refuse to be labeled and put in pigeon boxes, especially when all qualifiers are blanket statements crafted to garner votes and gain support for dubious political adventures.

We love Quebec, we are full-fledged citizens, we strive to live in a tolerant, pluralistic, all inclusive society where each and every person will be valued for their contribution. Together by joining our efforts, by opening our minds and our hearts we will become this society, Insha Allah, God willing.

Extracts of the Statement on the Charter of Quebec Values
by Students in the Joint Doctorate in Communications. Published November 5, 2013.

For example, an advertisement placed in many Montreal metro stations reads “Église, synagogue, mosquée, tout cela est sacré; Neutralité religieuse de l’État, égalité hommes-femmes, c’est tout aussi sacré.”

This juxtaposition carries the message that religious minorities have an agenda to compromise the religious neutrality of the state and gender equality in society. It also indirectly makes the assertion that these objectives have already been realized, when Quebec society and the state itself are far from “equal” or “neutral.”

We also note that this publicity campaign cost $1.9 million of public money, as reported by TVANouvelles.

The charter’s website gives examples of what are acceptable as discreet signs of religious affiliation and what is considered overt and unacceptable. Included in the acceptable items is jewelry that symbolizes a religious affiliation; unacceptable items include turbans, large crosses, face coverings and yarmulkes.

The majority of unacceptable items belong to non-Christian religions, sending the message that religious minorities are a threat to Quebec’s supposedly neutral and secular society. The images serve to identify who are real Québécois, and who must erase their religious affiliation to remain employed.

Some good news
Canada NewsWire: TORONTO, Nov. 20, 2013

Inspirit Foundation awards $250,000 to 15 projects that bring young people together to learn about differences and lead positive change in communities across Canada.

The Parti Québécois' charter of values proposes a ban on public servants wearing religious adornments. Considered by many as discriminatory, the charter is a reminder of the importance of creating opportunities to embrace differences in an increasingly diverse society.

Young people of different spiritual, religious and secular backgrounds in 15 communities nationwide will now have opportunities to interact, dialogue and embrace differences through the Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Grants. They will engage in projects to expand their knowledge of the growing and rich diversity in our communities, while increasing leadership skills and creating initiatives for the common good. The 15 projects selected will receive a total of $250,000 in grants.

Samaa Elibyari, originally from Egypt, has been living in Montreal for 40 years and has been involved in the Arab and Muslim community since then. She is the host and producer of Caravan, a weekly, bilingual radio program that gives an Arab-Muslim perspective on current events, for the last 15 years. Caravan is broadcast on CKUT 90.3 FM on the dial or every Wednesday from 2 to 3 p.m. She is also an active member of the Council of Canadian Muslim Women, Montreal Chapter. Samaa’s late husband, Prof. Basil Rattray, was of mixed Irish-Scottish decent, her in-laws are affiliated with the Anglican church.